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'The Missing Piece' Examines the Century-Old Theft of the Mona Lisa

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'The Missing Piece' Examines the Century-Old Theft of the Mona Lisa

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Silvio Peruggia, the grandson of the man who stole the Mona Lisa with the painting his grandfather had …

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre Museum in Paris. More than two years later, Italian-born Vincenzo Peruggia was arrested after attempting to sell Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting to an art dealer. As Time pointed out, Peruggia claimed he stole the artwork for patriotic reasons, but his true motivations remained unclear.

The new documentary "The Missing Piece" offers an in-depth look at this century-old crime. When reached by phone, director Joe Medeiros talked about his quest to find out the truth behind Vincenzo Peruggia's actions.

You said you first learned about this story in 1976. When doing the research for your screenplay, what challenges did you encounter?

Thirty-six years ago, we didn't have the luxury or the necessity of the Internet. So I went to the library and pulled microfiche from English-speaking publications because I speak neither French nor Italian. You're getting this story from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and British newspapers. And they are getting it all second-hand. There was quite a bit contradictory material, and I did find that.

That was one of things I wrestled with when I was trying to write a film script. It wasn't until I was able to get the original source material from the Louvre and from all the French archives and the Italian archives that I was able to piece together a straight-line narrative that didn't take me in circles.

But still, even that said, there are plenty of contradictory things in there. I just had to go through and see if I could verify any of the things. I usually went with something that had more than one source rather than just taking one word. It's very contradictory and very confusing.

"The Missing Piece" features detailed interviews with Perrugia's daughter Celestina and her children. How did you get such unprecedented access to her?

She's been interviewed by the Japanese, by the Germans, by this French journalist who is in our film. She's given interviews before, but I guess she never stumbled on somebody who basically spent his entire adult life trying to figure her father out.

I think that she took us seriously, that we were looking to really do a good job and solve this mystery and not to do any type of superficial thing. This, for me, was a passion. I was as passionate about finding an answer as she was to learning the truth. I was very grateful and thankful, obviously, of her and her children's participation in this.

[The family] really understood and appreciated what we were trying to do. I really couldn't have done the film without that kind of cooperation. Since Celestina couldn't travel, my better half-the producer of the film, my wife Justine-said we should really take [her son] Silvio to the Louvre and [her daughter] Graziella to Florence. Because Celestina can't be there, you really have to have a Peruggia there representing their grandfather.

The documentary contains light-hearted animation and other humorous bits. Was that important to the pacing of the story?

I spent 15 years in advertising as a copywriter and 22 years working for Jay Leno-I was the head writer of "The Tonight Show." I've sort of learned, in my own way, how to keep an audience interested even though the advertising and the comedy bits I did were a lot shorter than a 90-minute documentary.

I really felt it crucial to keep the feeling of the film light. We're not really dealing with heavy issues here. We're talking about a 100-year-old story being told by a 60-year-old guy. It's not one of these emotional, socially-oriented, heavy issue kinds of docs. It's basically a history lesson. Not to make it seem like people are in school, we tried to make it as light and entertaining as possible.

You've been investigating Vincenzo Peruggia and his crime for decades. Were there long periods where you put the script aside?

To tell you the truth, I never really put it aside. I worked on it for a long time, got totally frustrated, and then went and did something else. I actually quit my job in advertising and spent a couple of months trying to write a script and it was no good. I started pouring concrete for my father and I decided to go into photography. But I would always come back to take another crack at this.

"The Missing Piece" points out the ethnic prejudice that Peruggia felt while working at the Louvre. His French co-workers ever referred to him as "Macaroni." Did that attitude help motivate the theft?

There's that element in there, too. That's a very human thing I find: people tend to pigeonhole other people in certain ways. That's how they perceive them and they limit what their capabilities are. I guess Vincenzo Peruggia was better than he was given credit for.

What would you say is your own motivation for wanting to learn the truth behind the crime?

I wanted to do justice to his story. Even though I never wrote a fictional script, once I got all the documents, especially the psychiatrist's report and all the police details, they really helped me understand in a very practical way why this guy did this.

It's not just patriotism or it's not just money or it's not just mental deficiency or supposed mental deficiency. It's not just ethnic prejudice. It's really sort of a lucky patchwork or puzzle of them all. It's not black-and-white. He's a human being with complicated motives and I tried to dissect that as best I could.

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